Not Up to Snuff


Write a new post in response to today’s one-word prompt.


To be substandard is to be below the acceptable state.  A rotten tomato is substandard.  So is a rotten politician, but I won’t go there today.  What intrigues me is a saying I’ve heard for years:  “It’s just not up to snuff.”

Really?  Snuff?  I know what that is, but the connection  eludes me, so off I go to word etymology and the origin of such phrases.

There are two meaning for this rather funny word. The original snuff has a hidden origin, and during the 14th century is referred to the burnt part of a candlewick.  Used as a verb, then, to snuff a candle was to extinguish the flame.

Image result for snuff a candle


Then there is the powdered tobacco that was inhaled through the nostrils, beginning later, in the 1680’s. A rather nasty habit, in my opinion, but then we have plenty of our own nasty habits–like spitting tobacco juice from a chaw.  Blech.

Image result for Elegant man inhaling snuff

The meaning of snuff, then, was to draw up through the nose.  The word soon became a noun, and snuff was carried in elegant and often quite expensive and elaborate snuff boxes.

The verb form has also come to be applied to having a head cold, or, as we would say, a case of the sniffles–a word derived from snuffle, which isn’t used as often these days.

Interestingly, snuffing tobacco is likely to have come from the Dutch word snuiftabak, whose meaning is pretty obvious.  Because the habit of snuffing tobacco was  popular in Europe for a very long time, it became quite refined as better-quality varieties were created.  So being up to snuff  was to be of excellent quality rather than just satisfactory or usual.  Bad snuff was substandard, to be sure.

In my browsing of this word, I also read an unsubstantiated idea that, since the sense of smell is the first to go when a person is dying, that poor soul was said to be “not up to snuff.”

I think that’s a stretch.  My sense of smell started dying several years ago, and I don’t think I’m quite ready to turn up my toes just yet.

Turn up my toes.  There’s another interesting little phrase. . . .


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